These two Marine recruits from California never knew 9/11

By BEAU YARBROUGH | The Inland Valley Daily Bulletin | Published: September 10, 2019

ONTARIO, Calif. (Tribune News Service) — Gabriel Poon was eight days old when the planes struck the World Trade Center and Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

“I wasn’t there to experience it, so all it means to me is a tragic day in America,” said Poon, 18, a senior at Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga. “It shouldn’t happen again.”

Derek D. Robertson was born seven months after the United States and its allies invaded Afghanistan in response to the attacks.

“In class, we’d always watch documentaries on it, with people jumping out of the buildings because they didn’t want to get burned to death,” said Robertson, 17, a senior at Rancho Cucamonga High School.

Neither watched in horror as the terrorist attacks of that day played out on live television. They didn’t feel shock, terror or swelling patriotic fervor in response. As long as they can remember, the United States has been engaged in the wars that followed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Both Robertson and Poon have signed up to become Marines. They’re part of a generation of new Marines, soldiers, sailors and airmen enlisting 18 years after terrorist attacks they don’t remember, knowing there’s a chance they will be sent to fight in military engagements few believe will end any time soon. President Donald Trump canceled secret planned peace talks with Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and senior Taliban leaders on Sunday, Sept. 8, after the Taliban admitted they were behind an attack that killed a U.S. soldier.

“Wanting to join, it wasn’t because 9/11 happened,” Robertson said. “But seeing that I’d be fighting the guys that did it, it’s good to know that I’ll help with the cause.”

For those born since the 2001 attacks, 9/11 is ancient history, despite how awful it was.

“It’s sad, it’s tragic, but it doesn’t resonate because I wasn’t there to experience it,” Poon said. “It’s not something we hold near and dear to our hearts.”

In contrast, the wave of school shootings have left more of an impact on him and his classmates.

“It could very well happen to us,” Poon said.

Poon and Robertson have enrolled in the United States Marine Corps’ Delayed Enlistment Program. They meet regularly with fellow future Marines and recruits to train throughout the year. They do push-ups and go for runs, attired not in uniforms, but in matching T-shirts. After graduation in May, they intend to ship off to boot camp and become Marines.

“I’ve always wanted to join the military,” Robertson said. “I wouldn’t want a regular job after high school. I really wanted a job where you can serve others and to go to other countries and help others who can’t defend themselves.”

As of July 31, there were 1.3 million active duty military service personnel, according to the Department of Defense. That’s down from a high of 1.4 million active duty personnel in 2003, two years after the terrorist attacks.

As of May, there were 14,000 and 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan, according to the Department of Defense, a drop from about 100,000 in 2011. As of December 2017, there were about 5,200 troops in Iraq, down from a high point of about 157,800 in 2007 and 2008, according to the Congressional Research Service.

Robertson remembers wanting to join the military when he was a fourth grader in 2011.

“I looked up to those military guys as the coolest, toughest, bravest guys ever,” he said.

Although neither of his parents were in the military, Robertson comes from a long line of military personnel.

“Both of his great-grandparents were in it, my dad was in it,” said Robertson’s father, Derek P. Robertson, who works in construction. “My grandfather was really high up in the Navy, one of the lawyers in the Pentagon. My other grandpa, he was in the Navy. My dad was in the Army. A cousin was in the Marine Corps.”

Poon decided to become a Marine when a recruiter came to his high school.

“I wanted to do something with my life, serve something greater than me,” Poon said.

Poon isn’t going into the Marine Corps blind.

“My dad was in the Army and I had a grandpa who was in the Navy,” he said. “Dad was ‘Whatever choice you make; I may not like it, but I respect you for doing it.’”

His father would have preferred him to have joined the Air Force or Navy for more technical training. Poon told the Marines his top three choices in the Corps are intelligence, systems administration or the infantry. His mother, who works for the Veterans Administration, has warned Poon about the physical toll the service takes on Marines.

But for Poon, the challenge is the point.

“It’s hard. It’s something I want to overcome. I’m not joining for the money,” he said. “I want a challenge and I want to earn that title as a Marine.”

Robertson is similarly unconcerned about the relatively low pay he’ll make in the Marines.

A Marine right out of boot camp is a private at pay grade E-1. They make $19,659 a year and are eligible for extra income, including combat pay, flight pay and food and housing allowances.

“I know I would make a lot of money if I went to college, but I’m willing to put all that aside,” Robertson said. “It seems like a lot of fun, to go to college and party and have fun with all my friends.”

The teens’ classmates respect their choice to go into the military, even if they don’t all understand it.

“For the most part, most of my peers support my choice, because they don’t see themselves doing it. So they generally respect that,” Poon said. “It’s going to build discipline, honor, charisma. Not many places will teach you to be a leader.”

But even as deployment numbers fall, deployment to Afghanistan or Iraq remains dangerous. So far in 2019, 19 American troops have died in either country, according to the Military Times.

The danger doesn’t deter Poon or Robertson.

“I know I could be deployed there. But I’m the one who decided to sign my life away to the Marine Corps. This is the job,” Poon said. “It’s not that I’m not afraid — but someone has to do it.”

“I just want to help make a difference in other people’s lives,” Robertson said. “I told them I want infantry and nothing else.”

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